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Awareness of belief
Stephen Butterfill

1.

Mindreading & Interpretation

An awareness of other peoples beliefs


plays an essential role in everyday life.
In this diagram, for example, Molly believes that its raining, and Tom is aware
of her belief. But what is awareness of
belief? What is involved in being able
to recognise and think about beliefs?
Here are two requirements:

Variation Requirement Being


aware of beliefs involves appreciating how different people may
have beliefs different from ones
own (including beliefs which are
inconsistent with ones own beliefs).

Its
raining

Molly thinks
that its
raining
Molly has a belief

Tom is aware of
Mollys belief

Truth Requirement Being aware of beliefs involves understanding


what it is for beliefs to be false.

Are these different requirements, in the sense that someone could satisfy one
without satisfying the other? No one could meet the Truth Requirement
without meeting the Variation Requirement, because understanding that a
belief is false involves realising one should not believe it and appreciating
the possibility of having other beliefs in its place. But could someone meet
the Variation Requirement without meeting the Truth Requirement? In other
words, is it possible to be aware of beliefs which are inconsistent without
being aware that at least one of these beliefs is false?
For instance, suppose Tom thinks it isnt raining, and suppose he is
aware of this belief and of Mollys belief that it is raining. One of these beliefs must be false: either Tom or Molly has a false belief, so Tom is aware
of a belief that is false. But does it necessarily follow that Tom can understand that one of these beliefs is false?
Some philosophers say yes, others say no. Donald Davidson would
say no, because he thinks that being aware of a belief involves being able
to appreciate the possibility of false belief. In fact, Davidson thinks that
merely having a belief requires understanding that it may be false. He says,
one cannot believe something, or doubt it, without knowing that what one

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believes or doubts maybe either true or false, and in particular, that one may
be wrong (Davidson 1999: 12).
Opposing Davidsons view, Daniel Dennett claims that it is possible to
be aware of another persons beliefs without understanding that beliefs can
be false.1 As Dennett describes it, being aware of beliefs doesnt require
having any concepts at all. Instead, being aware of beliefs is a matter of being systematically sensitive to another persons beliefs in a range of practical ways (Dennett 1978: 275; 1987: 247). For example, purposefully engaging in deception would be a practical way of showing an appreciation of
potential differences in belief. So Dennett denies, whereas Davidson accepts, that awareness of belief necessarily involves understanding that beliefs can be false.
Davidson and Dennett also have different views about why awareness of
beliefs matters. For Dennett, the point of our being aware of other peoples
beliefs is to co-ordinate social interaction (see Dennett 1987: 50). On the
other hand, Davidson regards our capacity to be aware of others beliefs as
an essential part of understanding objects and events as inhabiting a world
shared by all but independent of any one person. For Davidson, awareness
of belief is defined by its role in enabling us to grasp that objects and events
are mind-independent, rather than by its role in facilitating social interaction
(Davidson 1991b: 201; 1991a: 164). This disagreement is relevant because
if coordinating social interaction is what awareness of belief is for, then
there is no reason to think it requires understanding the possibility that beliefs can be false. Since everyone acts on her own beliefs and modifies them
in the light of evidence available to her, it is irrelevant whose beliefs are
false from the point of view of co-ordinating interaction. All that matters are
differences in belief.
Who is right? Why is it important that we are aware of others beliefs,
and does this awareness require that we understand what it is for beliefs to
be false? The aim of this paper is to argue that there are two varieties of
awareness of belief, which Ill call mindreading and interpreting. Instead
of seeing Davidson and Dennett as saying conflicting things about a single
kind of awareness of belief, I think they are better understood as talking
about different kinds of awareness. Here is an initial characterisation:

Mindreading involves being sensitive to which beliefs a person has,


and knowing which actions her having these beliefs should lead to.
A mindreader knows how beliefs are acquired and what practical
consequences they have for action.

Interpreting involves using beliefs in giving reason-explanations.


An interpreter knows why someone should have particular beliefs,
and why these beliefs should lead to certain actions.

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Are mindreading and interpreting really different? Most people probably


think there is just one kind of awareness of belief, and would assume that
my initial characterisations of mindreading and interpretation simply emphasise different aspects of a single ability. In this paper, I aim to make the
distinction between mindreading and interpretation theoretically viable, and
to argue that interpreting beliefs, but not mindreading them, necessarily involves understanding that beliefs can be false. Someone who mindreads beliefs will satisfy the Variation Requirement but not the Truth requirement,
whereas interpreting beliefs involves satisfying the Truth Requirement. So
whether it is possible to be aware of differences in belief without understanding what it is for a belief to be false depends on whether we are talking
about mindreading or interpretation.

2.

What is it for a belief to be true or false? Pragmatists


and Intellectualists

My question is whether being aware of differences in peoples beliefs involves understanding that beliefs can be false. This question has two moving parts: an answer depends both on what awareness of belief is, and on
what it is for a belief to be true or false.
We cant take the notion of truth for granted, because there is much disagreement about it. One major axis of disagreement is that between Pragmatists and Intellectualists. William James, a Pragmatist, explains the point
at issue:
Truth is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their
agreement, as falsity means their disagreement, with reality.
Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a
matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is
raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term agreement (1907: 76).
Ill describe the Pragmatists position first. In How to Make Our Ideas
Clear, Peirce explains the Pragmatists position roughly as follows.2 Accepting a belief establishes habits, which are dispositions to think and act
in various ways in different circumstances. Any belief can be distinguished
by the particular habits established by its acceptance. Furthermore, the
whole purpose of accepting a belief is to establish these habits: whatever
there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it. So, the Pragmatist infers, To develop [a beliefs] meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. In other
words, the Pragmatist holds that the content of a belief is exhaustively determined by which habits accepting it would establish. This is a form of
functionalism about belief.

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This account allows the Pragmatist to define what it is for a belief to


agree with reality in terms of the habits associated with it. Thus James,
presenting a view he regards himself as sharing with Peirce, says:
Pragmatism defines agreeing to mean certain ways of working, be they actual or potential. Thus, for my statement the
desk exists to be true of a desk recognized as real by you, it
must be able to lead me to shake your desk, to explain myself by
words that suggest that desk to your mind, to make a drawing
that is like the desk you see, etc (James 1911: 218; cf. 1907:
82, 1911: 191).
But exactly which ways of working constitute the agreement of an idea with
reality? The Pragmatist answers that when an idea works in a way that is
consistently beneficial to a thinker, the idea agrees with reality and is therefore true. So, for the Pragmatist:
Those thoughts are true which guide us to beneficial interaction with sensible particulars as they occur.3
The Pragmatists claim isnt just that true beliefs happen to guide us to
beneficial interaction, or that beneficial beliefs are likely to be true; anyone
can accept this. Rather, the Pragmatist is claiming that this is what it means
for beliefs to agree with reality.4
Where James talks about the agreement of a belief with reality, modern
Pragmatists like Ruth Millikan or David Papineau talk about the truthconditions of beliefs. Like Peirce and James, they regard beliefs as having
characteristic consequences for thought and action. They also hold that the
consequences of a belief can be judged successful or unsuccessful without
reference to the truth of that belief. Although different Pragmatists use different notions of success, the basic idea is that an action is successful if it
fulfils the agents intention in acting, and a belief is successful if it would
lead to successful action. Given these claims, the Pragmatist asserts that:
(P)

The truth-condition of a belief is that condition under which actions


that result rationally from the belief will normally succeed.

How does this work? Suppose we know that Molly has a particular belief, S,
and that we know which actions this belief causes, but that we dont know
which truth-condition her belief has. The Pragmatists claim is, in effect,
that a generalisation of the form:
(G)

All actions that are rational consequences of Mollys belief S will


succeed if and only if p

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is equivalent to a statement of the form:


(T)

Mollys belief S is true if and only if p

In general, the Pragmatist claims that a beliefs truth-condition can be defined as whatever condition is required for the success of all actions reasonably caused by that belief.5 This is a contemporary reformulation of
James claim that a belief agrees with reality to the extent that it leads to
beneficial actions.
The Intellectualist objects that the Pragmatist gets things exactly the
wrong way around. Whereas the Pragmatist defines the truth-condition of a
belief in terms of its consequences, the Intellectualist claims that the truthcondition of a belief explains which actions someone who acts on that belief
should perform. For example, imagine its raining and Molly takes an umbrella because she wants to stay dry. The Intellectualist claims that we can
explain why Molly should take an umbrella in terms of the fact that she believes that taking an umbrella will keep her dry. So the Intellectualist treats
the following explanation as a paradigm:

(I1)
(I2)
(I3)

Molly believes that taking an umbrella will keep her dry.


Molly wants to stay dry.
Molly should take an umbrella.

As the Intellectualist understands it, this isnt a prediction of what Molly


will actually do; rather, justifies Mollys taking an umbrella. The Intellectualist asks why Mollys belief should cause her to take an umbrella, rather
than to call a taxi or stay at home. Her answer is that Mollys belief should
have this consequence because it is the belief that taking an umbrella will
keep her dry.
In general, the Intellectualist claims that the truth-condition of a belief
explains which actions that belief should result in. So knowing what a person believes gives us insight into why she acts, and this insight is not reducible to knowing which normal consequences her beliefs have. This is
incompatible with the Pragmatists way of defining truth-conditions for beliefs, because the Pragmatist defines the truth-condition of a belief as whatever condition guarantees the normal success of actions that are rational
consequences of that belief. So the Pragmatists explanation works in the
opposite direction:

(P2)
(P3)
(P1)

Molly wants to stay dry.


Molly should take an umbrella.
If Molly has a belief, S, which causes her to take an umbrella, then S is the belief that taking an umbrella will keep
her dry.

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The Pragmatist wants to explain why Mollys belief is true if and only if
taking an umbrella will keep her dry. The Intellectualist, on the other hand,
wants to explain why Mollys having this particular belief makes it the case
that she should take an umbrella if she wants to stay dry. The Pragmatist and
Intellectualist positions are opposed because these two explanations cant be
combined.
So the Pragmatists argument with the Intellectualist concerning the nature of truth boils down to a question about the direction of explanation. The
question is, Do the reasonable consequences of a belief determine its truthcondition, or are they determined by its truth-condition? Put like this, the
debate between the Pragmatist and the Intellectualist seems to be not at all
relevant to my theme, which is awareness of belief. So why does it matter?

3.

Pragmatist mindreaders and Intellectualist


interpreters

To answer this question, we need to change our focus from considering


what it is for a belief to be true or false to considering what it is to think of a
belief as true or false. The Pragmatist and the Intellectualist present themselves as giving philosophical accounts of what it is for a belief to be true or
false, but in this section Ill argue that we can reinterpret them as giving accounts of what it is to be aware of beliefs as true or false. The Pragmatist is,
in effect, giving an account of what mindreading is, while the Intellectualist
is giving an account of interpreting.
Ill start with an analogy to illustrate how the argument is going to work.
Instead of beliefs, think about maps. Imagine using a map to find out where
Bielefeld University is. Knowing how to use the map involves being able to
look at the map and the landmarks around one in order to decide which way
to walk. In addition to knowing how to use maps, most of us probably also
know why they work, that is, why they can be used to find out where to
walk. Maps work because they represent our environment, and inaccurate
maps can mislead us because they misrepresent our environment. Knowing
why a map works enables us to justify the use we make of it to select a route
to the university: the maps representing our environment justifies us in using the map to decide where to walk.
Just as the Pragmatist explains what it is for a belief to have a particular
truth-condition, so she can give an analogous account of what it is for a map
to represent a particular place. In the case of beliefs, the Pragmatist identifies the truth-condition of a belief as that condition under which actions rationally based on it normally succeed. In the case of maps, the Pragmatist
says that a map represents that place in which using the map appropriately
will normally get you where you want to be (compare Dewey 1938: 402-3).
So, for instance:

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(R*)

This map represents* Bielefeld if and only if following the map appropriately will normally get you wherever you want to be in Bielefeld.

This gives us a notion of representation for maps, which Ill call representation*. Is representation* the same as our ordinary, pre-theoretic notion of
representation? Two things might make it seem plausible that it is:
(a)
(b)

If following a map doesnt normally get us where we want to be in


Bielefeld, then it cant represent Bielefeld.
If following a map normally gets us where we want to be in Bielefeld, then it must represent Bielefeld.

This shows that a map represents Bielefeld if and only if it represents*


Bielefeld. However, the two notions of representation are different. This is
because they play different roles in justifying our use of maps. Suppose we
meet someone who knows how to use maps to find her way around, but
doesnt understand why following a map gets her where she wants to be. For
her, the map is a kind of magic, or else she treats it as a brute fact that maps
can be used to navigate. Using our pre-theoretic notion of representation, we
can explain to her that the usual way of following the map should get her
where she wants to be because the map represents Bielefeld. However, our
explanation would be circular if we used the Pragmatists notion of representation*. For to say that the map represents* Bielefeld is just to say that a
particular way of following the map will to get us where we want to be. So
we cant explain why following the map gets us where we want to be in
terms of the Pragmatists notion of representation*. This shows that representation is not the same as representation*.
Now imagine someone who doesnt understand our ordinary, pretheoretic notion of representation, but does grasp the Pragmatists notion of
representation* for maps. This person is a practising Pragmatist with respect
to maps. She would be able to distinguish an incorrect from a correct map,
but she would not be able to explain the usefulness of a map in terms of its
representational properties. She would know how to use maps to navigate,
but she wouldnt know why they get her to where she wants to be. She can
mindread maps but not interpret them.
There is an analogous argument concerning the Pragmatists account of
truth-conditions for beliefs. Here is how the Pragmatists defines the truthcondition of a belief again:
(T*)

The truth*-condition of a belief is that condition under which actions


that result rationally from the belief will normally succeed.

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Ive called what the Pragmatist defines truth* so that we can ask whether
truth* is like our ordinary, pre-theoretic notion of truth for beliefs. Assume,
for the sake of argument, that a belief is true* under exactly the same conditions that it is true.6 Even on this assumption, truth* is not the same as truth.
This is because we use the notion of truth in some explanations of thought
and action in which the notion of truth* cant feature.
The example I gave earlier illustrates this. In the example, its raining
and Molly wants to stay dry whilst shes out and about. Molly has a belief
that is true if and only if taking an umbrella will keep her dry. This belief of
Mollys causes her to take an umbrella. But why should this belief of
Mollys cause her to take an umbrella? Why shouldnt this belief instead
cause her to call a taxi or wear an anorak? Why arent these rational consequences of Mollys belief? Intuitively, there is a simple answer to this question. Mollys belief should cause her to take an umbrella because it is the
belief that taking an umbrella will keep her dry. Which truth-condition
Mollys belief has explains why her having this belief should result in certain actions and not others. But the truth*-condition of Mollys belief cant
explain why this belief should cause her to take an umbrella. This is because
which truth*-condition Mollys belief has is determined by which actions it
should cause. So you cant use truth*-conditions to explain why something
is a rational consequence of a belief.7
This is the difference between the notions of truth and truth*. The notion
of truth can explain why particular beliefs should result in certain actions.
The notion of truth* cant do this, because its definition has already assumed the relevant facts about which actions a belief should result in. You
cant use a concept to explain something you have already assumed in defining that concept.8
We dont ordinarily think about truth in the way described by the Pragmatist. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the Pragmatist describes a perfectly
coherent way of thinking about beliefs. Imagine someone who doesnt understand our ordinary, pre-theoretic notion of truth for beliefs, but does understand the Pragmatists notion of truth*. I dont mean to suggest that this
person reflectively adheres to the Pragmatists philosophical claims about
truth*; rather, the Pragmatists theory describes how this person actually
thinks about beliefs in practice. She is a practising Pragmatist with respect
to beliefs.
The practising Pragmatist can appreciate that not all beliefs are true*, and
she can appreciate that different people may have different beliefs. She also
knows how beliefs work; that is, she knows under what conditions beliefs
are acquired, and what practical consequences beliefs tend to have for action. Nevertheless, she doesnt understand why beliefs have the consequences they do. She cant justify her own or other peoples actions in terms
of the truth*-conditions of their beliefs. If we assume (with the Intellectualist) that one of the functions of the concept of truth is to play this role, we

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can say that she doesnt really understand what it is for a belief to be true,
even though she is aware of beliefs. This entails a qualified answer to the
question I started with: unless the Pragmatist is right about truth, a practising Pragmatist satisfies the Variation Requirement but not the Truth Requirement. And, irrespective of who is right, the Pragmatist and Intellectualist accounts of truth can be reinterpreted as theoretical descriptions of two
kinds of awareness of belief. Mindreading is the activity of thinking about
beliefs as if one were using the Pragmatists account of truth*, and Interpretation is thinking about beliefs in terms of the Intellectualists notion of
truth. Mindreaders are Pragmatists; interpreters are Intellectualists.9

Notes
1

2
3

4
5

In Conditions of Personhood (in Dennett 1978), he asserts that taking


the intentional stance towards another person does not require reflective
understanding of what one is doing.
How to Make Our Ideas Clear is reprinted in Peirce (1932).
James (1911: 82); cf. Peirce (1932: 247/5.387): truth is distinguished
from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray.
James (1911: 154); cf. (1911: 219-220) and (1911: 273).
Papineau (1993: 3.7.v), (1993: 3.9) and Millikan (1984: 77), (1993:
72-73). I am ignoring these authors many refinements of the Pragmatists basic claim.
This is a point on which many arguments against pragmatism concentrate. Some argue that the Pragmatists account yields intuitively wrong
(Pietroski 1992) or non-realist truth-conditions (Forbes 1989; Peacocke
1992, 5.2). Even if the Pragmatist can answer these objections, this
doesnt show her account of truth is adequate.
Some philosophers present this kind of point as an objection to the Pragmatists account of truth (Godfrey-Smith 1996: 6.3; Johnston 1993),
without mentioning that some pragmatists explicitly endorse it as a consequence of their theories (James 1907: 85; Millikan 1993: 237).
For people who would object to this sentence, see the replies to Johnston
(1993) by Wright (1992, 130), Miller (1995), (1997), and Menzies and
Pettit (1993). These objections can be bypassed, because my argument
requires only that an explanation looses some of its justificatory depth if
it uses a concept to explain something already assumed in defining that
concept.
I have been helped enormously by comments and criticisms at GAP4,
and by many other people.

References
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